Advice To Children: Parenting in the 19th Century

United States History: 19th century
Gretchen Hovan, St. Peter’s Preparatory School (Jersey City, NJ)

History/Social Science Curriculum Frameworks Learning Standards addressed:

  • NCSS standard:  Individual development and identity
  • New Jersey Standard 6.4:  All students will acquire historical understanding of societal ideas and forces throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.

Grade Level:  11th (U.S. History I)
Topic: Social history (families)
Lesson:  Advice to children (parenting children) 
Overview:  Students today are often unaware of the way the “role” of childhood, and our understanding of what children need, has changed throughout time.  In order to better understand the past, students need to learn the differences in these, and other, societal attitudes so that they can see the limitations of projecting their own selves into the past as a method of understanding the past.
For this lesson, students will have read an article on the history of childhood and child rearing practices.  The students will then examine three sets of letters from the Porter-Phelps-Huntington family to see what themes connect to their article as well as how the letters differ.  The letters encompass a variety of concepts about children, doctors, parenting, and how one leads a “good life,” so the students will need to be able to apply previous learning in their interpretation of the letters.  Two of the three letters are easily read in the original penmanship and so every effort should be made to present the letters in their original format.
Finally, students will be asked to interview their own family about how they were raised and use this information in a final comparison/contrast reflection essay.
Time: 1 ½ class periods


  • Concepts:  Students will be able to interpret primary sources; determine what information can and cannot be gleaned from sources.
  • Content: Students will be able to identify differences and similarities in ideas about raising children and sources for these ideas.
  • Skills: Students will be able to compare and contrast information from primary sources, evaluate ideas and determine their veracity and relevance to the students’ own lives.



  • Before students read, they will be asked to do a brief quick write on how they think children should be raised (how they should be treated, what values should they be taught, etc.). The teacher may leave this question “open” or provide more specific questions.
  • Students will read article on the history of childhood and childrearing. Students may be asked to take notes on specific themes or to use other active reading strategies.
  • The letters may be given to the students in advance and assigned as pre-reading. All students should have copies of all the letters for the final discussion. 

Class work:

  • Teacher will briefly introduce the PPH family (founding family in Hadley, who had an influence in religious and social matters of their times; family who wrote much to each other and so provide us a good window into family relationships) and will highlight for students the relationships that they will be looking at in their small groups  (EPP to EWPH is mother to daughter when daughter’s children are babies, DH to BTH and EH is father to young daughters, HSH to LSBH is mother-in-law to daughter-in-law at birth of first child)
  • In at least three small groups (preferably six, with two groups for each letter), students will read their letters and use the large paper to create a chart with three columns:  “Specific advice (actual words/thoughts)”, “What it means (what is the context)”, and “How does it differ from modern advice/ideas.”
  • During the group work, the teacher will be circulating among the groups and asking divergent questions to help the students to probe the sources more deeply and to connect the information to what they already have learned about the period.
  • At the end of the work time, students will gather in a large group and present their findings to the whole class.  If more than one group is assigned to each letter, these groups should present their work to the class next to each other(with the second group saying what they observed that was different than the first group).
  • If there are gaps in the analysis, the teacher should ask questions, at the end of the presentations, to help the students consider the angles they have overlooked.  This should be done especially to help students see what the letters cannot tell them.


  • Students will interview own families about how they were raised. Before this interview, the teacher could create a list of guiding questions or the students could generate this list, based on their reading and the letters. Students will then need to write an essay in which they compare and contrast the information they have learned about the history of childhood and childrearing. The students should also conclude with their own observations about how childhood has changed and their analysis of whether or not this is positive change. 


  • Final essay will be graded with a rubric that takes into account technicalities like spelling and grammar as well as the depth of thought about the topic and the use of facts and reasoning to support the arguments.

Extension Possibilities/Interdisciplinary Connections:

  • Students could also look at previous and current issues of Parents’ magazine (the magazine started in the 1920s, so issues of it could be used in place of the letters if you are teaching a younger grade or want to only look at the transformation of parenting advice over time).
  • In schools with health classes, this unit could be placed to coincide with the segments on reproduction as a piece to help students think about what becoming a parent means in terms of responsibility.

Tips and reflections from the author:

  • For CLASSWORK, I have found that group work goes more smoothly in my class when we have discussed (before group work begins) how one works in a group – the social and practical skills needed.  To that end, when students work in groups in my class, they usually have “roles.” The most common ones are: facilitator (responsible for keeping the group going in the right direction and making sure everyone talks or is heard), recorder (responsible for writing down the ideas the group produces), and reporter (responsible for telling the larger group what was learned in the small group). Usually the students are required to switch these roles, especially in long-term groupings.
  • For EVALUATION/ASSESSMENT, I have found that students produce more thoughtful work when rubrics identify the levels of accomplishment (including what is expected at each level) and when rubrics are given to students in advance.